As you will have seen from the Sensational Snippet I posted from The Sinkings, debut author Amanda Curtin has a gift with words. I was completely seduced by this book and even broke a long held rule of mine to finish it: I never take library books away with me on any trip in case QANTAS loses my luggage again, but The Sinkings went with me to Canberra this weekend because I could not bear to leave it behind. It is that good.
There is a dual plot. Willa Samson is disabled by guilt and grief, and has withdrawn from life. But a small snippet of a story from a book she was copy-editing twelve years ago has niggled away in her memory and she decides to fill her empty days with some idle research to see if she can solve a rather strange mystery…
The book she had worked on was an historical journal called Past Lives, and the article that caught her attention was the tale of an ex-transportee called Little Jock, whose dismembered remains had been found in 1882, at a deserted campsite called The Sinkings. The ferocity of the attack was odd enough, but stranger still was that at the autopsy, the remains of this man were identified as female.
And so begins a trail across the centuries, as Willa seeks to assuage her misery with an investigation into the strange life of Little Jock, both man and woman and yet not really either. And before long the reason for Willa’s interest is revealed: her daughter Imogen was born with a similar condition and some distressing event has triggered Willa’s loss of this beloved daughter. For most of the book the reader does not know the nature of that loss – death? suicide? estrangement? committed to a mental hospital? There is real mastery in the way this enticing tale has been plotted so that the chronology moves both backwards and forwards in time with the mystery of Imogen at its heart.
The intensity of Willa’s barely suppressed grief and the strength of her obsession with the family history of Little Jock makes us wonder about her grip on reality at times: she spends money she can ill afford, she risks alienating her brother with the sale of a special car that he had long coveted, and she takes off across the world to Scotland (in winter!!) on a whim. She has so isolated herself from others that she pushes away harmless friendly overtures from a fellow family researcher, and chooses to live instead like a hermit – with only a cat for some semblance of affection in her life. The lyrics from ‘Eleanor Rigby’ kept echoing in my mind as I read this: All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’
This would be a fascinating book for book groups to discuss because the issue of gender identity is central to the author’s purpose. There is an ethical minefield for parents faced with decisions about early surgery, and the notion of non-conforming gender is a confronting one in our highly gendered society. There isn’t, apparently, even agreement about what people with this condition would like themselves to be called, and as you can see I have done my best to respect this by not using any kind of label. Curtin has – without being heavy-handed or overly earnest – tackled a most original subject in an engaging and respectful way that humanises both people who have the condition and those who love them.
I think Amanda Curtin promises to be one of our most interesting writers of the upcoming generation.
Author: Amanda Curtin
Title: The Sinkings
Publisher: University of Western Australia Press, 2008
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
Fishpond: The Sinkings